This essay in meta-ethics discusses what is of value in the world, and forms the basis for most of the rest of my ethical thought.

What is valuable in the world, why and in what sense, and what follows from this?

In this essay I will discuss which things can be found valuable, outline some reasons why these things may be said to be valuable, and address some of the consequences of my favoured approach. I will do this by explaining and evaluating several common viewpoints. I will start with the holistic, deep ecological, approach of Arna Ness. We will then encounter the individualistic biocentric, or life based, approach as argued by Harley Cahen. Next I will review the pathocentric views of Peter Singer, centred on the capacity for subjective experience such as pain. Then I will discuss the forms of value implicit within Warwick Fox’s distinctions of types of harm. Finally I will look at the value Don Marquis’ puts on a ‘Future Like Ours’. I will then outline my own views. First I will define the sense in which I am using the term ‘value’.

I will be using ‘value’ to represent inherent or intrinsic value, as opposed to instrumental value.  If something has inherent value, it is valuable in itself. ‘The presence of inherent value in a natural object is independent of any awareness, interest, or appreciation of it by any conscious being.’[1] There is some fact of that thing that makes it valuable irrespective of its relation to other things. The value of a living being, for example, could be based in the fact of its life. The being need not serve a human, ecological or other end to have a claim on moral status, but is worthy of consideration due to an aspect of its being. Terms such as moral status and moral considerability are intended to contain the concept of inherent value.

The second form of value is known as instrumental value. This is where the value of a thing is measured only in regard to the end it serves to another thing. For example, an axe is valuable because it can serve a human end. Namely, it chops wood to feed fires or create aesthetic pleasure. Its’ value is in its use as a tool or instrument.

Deep Ecology.

Arna Ness lists eight claims basic to the deep ecology movement. The first two of these points outline his belief of what in nature is of value. First, he states that ‘[t]he well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life have value in themselves’[2]. In the second statement of the platform he states that ‘[r]ichness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realisation of these values and are also values in themselves.’[3] In his notes, he clarifies that he is using the term ‘life’ in a loose manner. He is extending the meaning of life to refer to such non-living things as rivers, ecosystems, and landscapes. He claims it is our duty to preserve and promote these values. Any action that disrupts the richness and diversity of an ecosystem not only harms the values of richness and diversity. It is also likely to harm the development and flourishing of the individuals, species, and populations within the biotic community, which is a value in itself.

One attack on the holistic approaches comes from Cahen. Cahen argues against the moral considerability of ecosystems. Cahen believes that to have moral considerability, a thing must have interests. Interests are only attributable to those things with goals. He argues that ecosystems do not have goals. He uses Wright’s explanation of a goal-directed behaviour. ‘A system is goal directed… only if it behaves as it does just because that is the type of behaviour that tends to bring about that type of goal.’[4] Although the self regulation of an ecosystem can be seen as an end of the behaviour it brings about, it cannot be said that the behaviour is brought about to achieve that end. The goal-directed behaviour is exhibited by those individuals that aim toward something. One possible effect is the eventual dynamic stabilisation of relative populations. This is a side effect of the sum total of individualistic goal-directed behaviours, rather than a goal-directed behaviour in itself. As the ecosystem has no goal-directedness, it cannot have interests. If an ecosystem, and by extrapolation any other community, has no interests, it has no inherent value, and no moral status.


Taylor argues that life is a necessary and sufficient condition for moral consideration. He argues that a plant has interests, in that there is something that is good for it. From the standpoint of a plant ‘we recognise objects and events occurring in its life as being beneficent, maleficent, or indifferent.’[5] These would be the plant flourishing, dying, or carrying on regardless respectively. To prevent a plant from receiving adequate nutrition is against the interest of that plant in that it will prevent it from flourishing. Anything that prevents a living being reaching its optimum state is against the interests of, and is therefore harmful to, that being. This is, it is argued, a form of harm with moral weight.

The argument I would use to counter this is based around the definition of interests. A tree has no interests, as it has no subjective experience. Subjective experience is essential toward interests, as a state of affairs must be good or bad to the tree for it to have an interest in that state of affairs. To break a branch from a tree is to damage it physically, and probably hamper its’ flourishing. However, there is no awareness of the fact that it has received physical damage. Despite the consequences being to the tree physically, it is not negative to the tree, but to our perception of what is best for the tree. If a being cannot have experience of an act of vandalism or its consequences, it cannot be meaningfully said that it has been harmed in any way.

A biocentrist could dispute this argument. They might claim that all life exhibits behaviour that is obviously goal-driven. It is not the case that a plant is harmed through an act of vandalism because it can feel it, but because it disrupts the progress the plant is making toward a set goal. Each form of life ‘is a unified system of goal-oriented activities directed toward their preservation and well-being.’[6] It would be preventing the completion of those goals if a plant were to be damaged.

The fact that non-sentient beings appear to be goal-driven is misleading. There is, I believe, a morally significant difference between the goal-driven behaviour as the drive is simply a product of the process of evolution selecting those beings that are most fit for the environment. In the case of trees, plants and other non-sentient beings it is the case that those most likely to succeed will be the ones that act as if they were goal-driven. This is, however, a very different statement from the claim that they actually have morally considerable goals. A morally considerable goal, I feel, is one which the actor has a certain disposition towards. That means the actor must have a preference for that goal to be satisfied. A plant cannot hold this sort of a preference as it has no internal subjective experience. I therefore find plants, and by extension all other non-sentient beings, to have no direct moral value.


A pathocentric approach to the question in consideration would state that the primary thing of value is the sensation of pain or pleasure. Sentience, in this context, will be approximately equivalent to the capacity to feel pain or pleasure. These terms are not, in this context, related solely to physical phenomena. Pain is taken to be anything that is a subjectively negative experience, whether physical, psychological, or emotional. Singer argues that the capacity to feel pain and pleasure is sufficient to have interests, and therefore value. A sentient being is necessarily one that has subjective internal experience. It has a preference not to be in a situation where it will feel this pain. ‘[If] a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration.’[7] A great deal of truly goal-directed behaviour works toward the promotion of pleasure or reduction of pain. If goal-directed behaviour is to be seen as a step toward the having of interests, then the goal toward which it commonly works must be seen as one of those interests. Therefore, if sentience is the criterion for moral consideration, that which must be considered is the pleasure or pain caused to that being. The thing that is of value is the internal subjective experience itself.

One argument against pathocentrism could be that the criterion of sentience, and the placement of value solely on subjective internal experience, does not account for common ethical feelings. For example, it should be argued by a committed pathocentric that the painless killing of even a fully self aware, rational being with concepts of and plans for the future is not inherently wrong, as it would not cause pain, the only thing of importance. However, many would argue that there is clearly something missing here. To kill a being that has the potential for a rich and pleasurable life, or has projected aims and goals is against the interests of that being. Worse than that, killing would be taking away the very capacity to have interests. This must be wrong, and therefore a theory of value must take into account of the wrongness of killing.

Forms of harm distinction.

There is an important distinction to be drawn here between forms of harm. Warwick Fox claims there are two ways in which a being can be harmed. The first is that dealt with by the pathocentric approach, namely the causation of pain and suffering. The second form of harm Fox identifies is autobiographical harm, and is the one that constitutes the wrongness of killing. This is harm that is done to ‘the sense of being an ongoing, inner, psychological identity-a self-that is conscious of being the subject of an unfolding life story.’[8] A being that can suffer autobiographical harm must be one that knows it exists and thinks of itself as a distinct entity existing through time, thus creating an internalised autobiographical story. It is this autobiography that is deserving of respect, and so has value in itself. If this autobiography is absent or destroyed, through the removal of either self-consciousness or temporal awareness, the only harm that can come to a being is in the form of pain and suffering. It has not got the ability to conceptualise itself as a temporal body, and experience anything other than a series of instances occurring. To kill this being, Fox claims, would not be wrong, as it would not interrupt a linear internal projection of the self. However, to kill an autobiographical being would be interrupting this projection, thwarting the hopes, plans, and projects of that person. It is this that is wrong with killing. This means there is value in the autobiographical capabilities of a being able to have them.

One issue that could be raised in opposition to Fox’s arguments is that of infanticide. A young baby is unable to view itself as an individual, and lacks the concept of time. This means they are non-autobiographical beings. If there is nothing inherently wrong with the ending of a non-autobiographical existence, there can be nothing inherently wrong with painlessly killing an infant. It only becomes wrong when the infant is incorporated into society, and is inferred moral status. This, it could be argued, shows a flaw in the theory. There is something that is wrong with infanticide that brings about the common distaste for it. Therefore there must be a form of value that is not covered by this distinction.


Don Marquis argues, in the abortion debate, that the wrongness of killing a conscious being is in the deprivation of a potentially rich internal life. The life a normal adult human is made more valuable by the fact there is a richness of experience. A good in life is something which is, or would be, valued. ‘They are completed projects of which we are proud, the pursuit of our goals, aesthetic enjoyments, friendships, intellectual pursuits, and physical pleasures of various kinds.’[9] These are the sorts of things that they may value. To kill an infant is wrong because it deprives that infant of a future that it would appreciate. Marquis refers to this potentially enriched future as a ‘future like ours’. In this theory, that which is of value is the internal experience or recognition of value. It is the deprivation of the opportunity to have experience of value that makes killing wrong.

Marquis claims that having an FLO is a current facet of an infant or comatose adult. However, this argument seems to be based on potentiality, despite Marquis’ claims. An infant does not have a future; it has the potential to have a future. This means that in killing an infant we are not depriving any real being of any real goods. The infant as it is has no interest, and so no interests, in the future. The being with an interest in the future experience of an infant is the adult that that infant will potentially become. This person only exists in potential, and so no harm can come to them if they do not come to exist. This means there is no value in an FLO, as having an FLO does not convey moral status.


My stance is that larger parts of the biosphere, such as ecosystems, are not inherently valuable. They are not aware, and so cannot be harmed, and do not show goal-directed behaviour. The exhibition of goal-directedness is a commonly agreed upon criteria for interests, and I feel the having of interests also relies upon the ability to be interested. An ecosystem meets neither of these criteria.

I would also contend that non-sentient beings do not have interests. Again, this is because that behaviour which appears to be goal-directed is merely a behavioural side effect rather than the reason that behaviour came about. They also lack the ability to take an interest in what occurs to them, in that they do not have a subjective experience. There are no states to which they adopt a negative or positive outlook. If they cannot feel something as harm, they are not harmed. This means there is no intelligible way in which a non-sentient being can be harmed or helped. Therefore they have no moral status, and no value.

I have more sympathy with the pathocentric outlook. Sentience appears to be the criterion that guarantees that all and only beings with interests are seen as morally considerable. However, I feel this misses something vital, namely the wrongness of killing. I would tentatively put it that the best explanation of this wrongness is as described by Fox. A being has an interest in completing the projects it has set itself. The argument from the FLO perspective seems to be flawed in its aspect of potentiality. Therefore, the things I find to be of value in the world to be those experiences it is necessary to take a dispositional attitude toward. Anything to which we have a positive attitude is good, and anything to which we have a negative attitude is bad.

The Consequences.

The views I have outlined above lead me to the conclusion that there are two goods in the world that is two things of value. These are subjective internal experience, and the capability to have a continual sense of self with which to structure these experiences. I am inclined toward a consequentialist outlook, as I perceive promoting the good to be of greater worth than honouring the good. The interests of pain and pleasure are apparent in all sentient beings equally. That is that any creature capable of feeling pain has the interest not to feel it to the same degree. These interests should be taken into account equally. It is as wrong to cause a certain amount of pain to any one creature as it to cause the same amount of pain to any other. Every action should be guided in part toward the end of reducing the sum pain felt by all. As far as it goes, this aspect of my approach is similar to that of Singer.

However, I feel there is also value in autobiographical capabilities. The recognition of a self through time leads to a greater richness of life, an awareness of the possibility of a future. The plans and hopes for this future are interests of the autobiographical being in the same sense as are pain and pleasure, in that they will lead to a positive or negative attitude upon their completion or frustration. It is the capability to have such prospects and memories that is of another value. This value is much more restricted within the animal kingdom, probably to language users according to the research reviewed by Fox[10]. This means that the second part of any moral evaluation of an action should account for the potential loss of autobiographical capabilities. Realistically, this equates to the killing of language using humans.

Although there is no simple formula for how these two goods should be weighed, it seems clear that within this framework a moral action is one that promotes both happiness and autobiographical awareness. I have no answer yet as to how much suffering is of the same moral weight as an autobiographical death. I do, however, feel that neither should automatically trump the other, as is common in deontological ethics.

It may be argued that this tentative theory will not preserve ecological diversity and stability, as it is obviously individualistic. There is no preference given to the final member of a species over a member of a more populous species. This is the case, but I do not see it as a weakness of the theory. Extinction is a process that will continue to occur regardless of our actions. Extinctions that occur due to human activity are sad not because a species is lost in itself, but because of the effect it has on other sentient beings.

A similar line of reasoning deals with the objection from infanticide. Foetuses and infants are held dear by a great proportion of the population. However, while they are sentient beings, they have no autobiography. Therefore, the wrongness in painlessly killing an infant is not rooted in the value of the infant. It is the reaction to infants that makes them valuable. They have an instrumental value in that they create pleasure in, and are cared for by, society. In modern Western culture we are medically advanced enough, and well enough supplied, that there is little or no need to commit infanticide, and as such it would be almost certainly wrong because of the effect it would have on other persons who care for the child. In other circumstances, such as those endured by the Inuit’s, the equation may be different. If a family cannot sustain a child, even though they may care for it, it may be in the best overall interests to kill it in as painless a fashion as possible.


I have reviewed some of the major themes in environmental ethics, and attempted to identify the source of value that serves as a theoretical foundation. We have seen Ness’ deep ecology, and his placement of value in natural systems, such as rivers, landscapes, and ecosystems. I then moved to the biocentric approach of Taylor, who places value in life. Following that we looked at Singer’s pathocentrism, which states value is in the experience of pain and pleasure. Then I discussed Fox’s notion of autobiographical harm, as opposed to the harm pain, and the implied value in the capacity to view the self through time. Finally we saw Marquis’ FLO theory, claiming that having a potential life of value is itself of value. I then put forward my own arguments, based on the discussions reviewed.


Cahen, H., Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems in Environmental Ethics An Anthology, ed. Light, A., and Rolston III, H. (2003): 114-128 Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK

Fox, W., A Theory of General Ethics, (2006) The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Marquis, D., An Argument that Abortion is Wrong, in Ethics in Practice An Anthology ed. LaFollette (2002): 83-93 Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK

Ness, A., The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects, in Environmental Ethics An Anthology, ed. Light, A., and Rolston III, H. (2003): 262-274 Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK

Singer, P., Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (1993) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

Taylor, P. W., The Ethics of Respect for Nature in Environmental Ethics An Anthology, ed. Light, A., and Rolston III, H. (2003): 74-84 Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK

[1]Regan, T. ‘The Nature and Possibility of an Environmental Ethics,’ Environmental Ethics 3 (1981): 19-34, citation p.30 cited Ness, A., The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects, in Environmental Ethics An Anthology, ed. Light, A., and Rolston III, H. (2003): 262-274, citation p.265

[2] Ness, A., The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects, in Environmental Ethics An Anthology, ed. Light, A., and Rolston III, H. (2003): 262-274, citation p.264

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cahen, H., Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems in Environmental Ethics An Anthology, ed. Light, A., and Rolston III, H. (2003): 114-128, citation p.118

[5] Taylor, P. W., The Ethics of Respect for Nature in Environmental Ethics An Anthology, ed. Light, A., and Rolston III, H. (2003): 74-84, citation p. 79

[6] Ibid. p. 79

[7] Singer, P., Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (1993), citation p. 57

[8] Fox, W., A Theory of General Ethics (2006), p. 134

[9] Marquis, D., An Argument that Abortion is Wrong, in Ethics in Practice An Anthology ed. LaFollette (2002): 83-93, citation p. 87

[10] Fox, W., A Theory of General Ethics (2006) predominantly Chapters 7 – 8

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